Good for Peggy Noonan (on GOP Get-Tough Talk)

By James Fallows

See UPDATE below.

I don't always, or often, see the world just the way Peggy Noonan does, so I was struck by her latest WSJ column. It was about this week's GOP debate, and it expressed a concern that I had also felt but not taken the time to think through or write down. She mentioned the series of hypothetical questions about what the candidates would do in Iran, Pakistan, or other trouble spots:

I also wondered if it actually serves U.S. interests to have possible presidents in a formal venue pressed on whether they will topple this regime or bomb that sovereign nation. At one point Wolf Blitzer asked Newt Gingrich: "Would you, if you were president of the United States, bomb Iran's nuclear facilities to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power?"...

Should we be discussing those things so blithely and explicitly in such a public way? You have to wonder what the world thinks when it hears such talk--and the world is watching.

It would have been nice to hear one of the candidates say, "You know, Wolf, I'm not sure it's a good idea to talk the way we're talking at a time like this, with the world so hot and our problems so big. Discretion isn't cowardice, so let me give you the general and overarching philosophy with which I'd approach these challenges, and you can infer from it what you like. I prefer peaceable solutions when they are possible. I think war is always a tragedy, sometimes necessary, sometimes even inevitable, but always tragic, and so I don't speak lightly or blithely of taking up arms . . ."

By the end, some of what was said sounded so dramatic that Ron Paul seemed like the normal one. He very much doesn't want new wars or new military actions. This is not an unreasonable desire! Jon Huntsman was normal too. They both seemed to think our biggest foreign-policy challenge is the American economy, which pays for our arms and diplomacy but has grown weak. It has to be made stronger, because without it we can afford nothing.

Emphasis added, to what is a truly excellent suggested-answer paragraph, for this reason: Over the years I have interviewed a lot of people about military action, and they have come from two broad categories. Some are actual military people, especially those who have led troops in combat. The others are "policy" people, from think tanks, the media, academia, and so on. The most striking difference between the two is that the real military figures virtually never "speak lightly or blithely of taking up arms." That difference was notable before the Iraq war, and it is notable again in discussions about how to handle Iran.
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UPDATE. A reader begs to differ:

I totally disagree with you and Ms. Noonan. I think we really need to know what the candidates are thinking about their foreign policy with respect to taking up arms. We really do need to know if these people are irrational warmongers BEFORE they get into office. So the more that the Wolf Blitzers press these people on foreign policy and national security, the better I like it. Would that we (or the press, more specifically) had discerned an irrational neoconservative policy thinking on Iraq back in 2000.

If I were a very, very cynical person, I might be thinking that Ms. Noonan is concerned at how completely frightening the GOP candidates are with respect to foreign policy and national security. If I were that cynical, I'd think she was sending a message for them to clam up with respect to foreign policy and national security, lest they scare the children, and the adults in America.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/11/good-for-peggy-noonan-on-gop-get-tough-talk/249079/